Earlier this morning, I received an email saying I’d been accepted into the beta program for Sprout. Not remembering what Sprout was, I checked out, emerging about three hours later with my head full of ideas. Sprout Builder is a web application with which you can quickly build lots of really funky Flash-based rich content. (You can sign up but cannot use Sprout Builder until you are accepted into the beta.)
For bloggers who like to use visual elements to make a blog stand out, Sprout Builder might be just what you’re looking for. (You can even combine the RSS Feed component with Yahoo Pipes.)
Components and Functionality
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the components and functionailty available in the visual interface.
- Geometric shapes: rectangle, circle/oval, star, line.
- Text. Limited fonts at present.
- Rich media: audio/ jukebox (single file or scrolling list), images, video, slideshows.
- Multi-frames. Position components anywhere on a page.
- Multi-pages. Add multiple pages, accessible through the “thumbnail menu” component.
- Thumbnail menu (buggy).
- News feed. View items from an RSS feed.
- Web services (ChipIn, Google Charts, Yahoo! Maps, with Meebo Chat, Ribbit Phone and PollDaddy coming).
- Drag and drop of components onto Sprout Builder canvas.
- One-click alignment of groups of components.
- Locking of a component’s position on the Builder canvas.
That’s just for starters. I’m assuming that more components and web services will be added, to make Sprout Builder more robust.
Even though the interface components are fairly limited so far, there are still quite a few uses for sprouts. Here are a few.
- Polls (once the PollDaddy module is functioning)
- How to get here/ itineraries – add in maps
- Rich webcasting – present podcasts/ vodcasts with other types of content simultaneously.
You might be able to come up with your own after reading this article and looking at the Sprout gallery. (I think you have to be in the beta program to see the gallery items.)
Positives and Negatives
I don’t want to be too harsh, as Sprout Builder is still in beta, and it offers a great deal of functionality already. However, this is a review, and I’m listing some of the positives and negatives that I found, in the spirit of constructive criticism.
- Easy to drag and drop, move items around.
- A bit confusing at first, in terms of building process. However, after building a half-dozen Sprouts, I started getting the hang of it.
- Once saved, I couldn’t seem to resize components.
- Components are sometimes slow to load, both in the Builder and after embedding on a web page.
- RSS feed update options are either “never” or “every 5 minutes”, which is truly absurd. It would be nice to have the options “every hour” and “once per day”.
- There’s something buggy and very annoying about the Thumbnail Menu component. If you create a Sprout with multiple “pages”, you’ll need a way for the end user to access each page – i.e., with the Thumbnail Menu. But during the build process, if you accidentally click on a page’s thumbnail, it turns into a red X and for some reason, the thumbnails across pages are out of sync. This is so annoying that I gave up on building multi-page Sprouts.
- While tearing apart my older multi-page Sprouts for this review, I found that I could not clone a Sprout and tweak it. I’m so used to being able to do this in Yahoo Pipes that this inability in Sprouts is a big downer.
- While you cannot clone Sprouts, you can embed someone else’s Sprout on your web pages, if they’ve “Published” it. And if they modify the Sprout, all copies across the Internet are automatically updated.
- The Jukebox module automatically plays the first audio track. This is not a very desirable behavior.
- There are no guidelines/ gridlines to help fine-tune positioning.
As I said, Sprout Builder is still in beta. So I’m hoping they’ll work out the bugs eventually. I’ve created a couple of example Sprouts and embedded them below.
Example: Test Sprout
This Sprout incorporates an RSS news feed, Yahoo Map, Google Graph, and calendar. (Note: Google recently offered a relatively simple way to produce a variety of charts and graphs using an URL structure that can be built on the fly. Sprout Builder makes it even easier to use by offering a visual interface to enter the graph/ chart info. Except that it means using static charts – for now.)
Example: Multimedia Sprout
This Sprout incorporates a “jukebox”, image slideshow, and static images. So you have a number of options for presenting rich media content.
Example: Movie Sprout
This Sprout incorporates a movie poster image, two video clips and a bit of text. You could rearrange the layout, or use multiple pages, to include a short review. Personally, for SE (Search Engine) juice, I would put the text of the review in the body of your blog post, not buried in the Flash object. (I don’t claim to know the pros/cons of text within Flash, but I believe some SEs index the embedded text.)